Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Publishers and Lawyers

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Publishers and Lawyers

Article excerpt

In the Romantic period, publishers frequently needed guidance on legal problems. These problems ranged from concerns in most kinds of commerce, such as leasing a place of business, to concerns in the book trade, such as questions of copyright or libel. The success of "respectable" booksellers like Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown or John Murray depended upon owning and protecting their exclusive rights to literary properties. Although Murray faced three civil actions for libel, all involving articles in the Quarterly Review, and he was convicted of criminal libel in 1829, most of his legal activity concerned matters related to copyright. Murray, like Longman, was advised by Sharon Turner (1768-1847), who was an attorney and solicitor as well as the author of a distinguished History of the Anglo-Saxons (1799-1805). Technically, an "attorney" was licensed to work in common law and a "solicitor" was licensed to work in equity, but almost all attorneys were solicitors and almost all solicitors were attorneys, and early-19th century practice was to employ the terms interchangeably. Turner's work with Murray can be reconstructed from the 120 letters he (or by his son and business partner Alfred) wrote to Murray in the John Murray Archive, now housed at the National Library of Scotland. (Smiles or Isaac have summarized or quoted a few of the letters). I have been studying this correspondence for the book I am writing, titled Lord Byron on Trial: Literature and the Law in the Romantic Period, which explores the relationship between written expression and legal inhibitions and reveals the uncoordinated, inconsistent, and often contradictory manner in which these inhibitions functioned.

Much of a legal advisor's work predicted the consequences of a prospective course of action. Because Turner was an attorney, not a barrister, his predictions were more tentative than if he were a member of the bar, and he and Murray repeatedly needed the insight that could be supplied by a man who attended the courts in Westminster Hall day after day. Sometimes Turner needed the opinion of a barrister who practiced in courts of common law; sometimes, the opinion of a barrister who practiced in courts of equity. In courts of law, such as the Court of King's Bench, a plaintiff might pursue an action for damage. Courts of equity, such as the Court of Chancery, were the only courts that could compel strict performance (and thus might force someone to fulfill a contract) or could issue an injunction prohibiting an act (and thus might order someone not to sell a book). The practice of equity in this period was dominated by Lord Eldon, the conservative statesman and lawyer who served as Lord Chancellor from 1801 to 1806 and again from 1807 to 1827. Not only did equity and law wield different weapons but also they often acted upon different principles. In 1827, author Thomas Crofton Croker tried to back out of an agreement to supply a book to Murray, and the agreement had never been formalized. Turner informed Croker's attorney that although Murray was powerless in common law because the author had not assigned him the copyright, the Court of Chancery would nonetheless issue an injunction because of the promises made in Croker's letters (Turner to Goulburn, June 16, 1827). Before Murray published George Birkbeck, Henry Adcock, and James Adcock's The Steam-Engine Theoretically and Practically Displayed (1827), he needed to be certain that the authors were free from earlier obligations to another publisher. Turner consulted two barristers, one practicing in equity, the other in law, and he reported back to Murray that while Lancelot Shadwell "thinks you are safe in Equity," nonetheless "Mr Bayley perceives some danger at the Common Law [...]" (Turner to Murray, July 8, 1826, Ms. 41210). Publishers needed predictions on what courts would do, yet even the most well-founded predictions were tentative and unreliable. For example, while Shadwell was an authority on the proclivities Eldon displayed while sitting in the Court of Chancery, he could not know if the Chancellor were likely to be influenced by a recent discussion in the Cabinet, or if Eldon had heard rumors concerning a matter before it was brought before him. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.